Alasdair MacIntyre’s analysis of modern moral philosophy posits Nietzschean or Aristotelian theories as logical choices from its current state. He laments the consequences of the failure of the Enlightenment Project as the source of the ills for moral uncertainty in the twentieth century. These two theories seem to represent extremes on the moral continuum. But if we assume that MacIntyre is correct, Christian apologists have a unique opportunity to leverage an argument for the restoration of moral virtue in our culture. MacIntyre’s analysis exposes a cultural vacuum of moral system options. If the hopelessness of Nietzsche is the only logical alternative to Aristotelian-Thomist virtue, our culture should be receptive to a Christian worldview which counters the pessimism.
The thesis of my essay is that the Aristotelian-Thomist virtue ethic espoused by MacIntyre is essentially correct but can only be effectively lived within a Christian framework. The initial section of my essay will be a cursory of MacIntyre’s historical judgment of the Enlightenment project. I will follow MacIntyre’s verdict with an expanded historical perspective on why the Aristotelian virtue system was set up for failure prior to the Enlightenment. The conclusion of my thesis will extol the value of a holistic Christian worldview as being an effective method for articulating and living the truth of a virtuous life.
Prior to my essay conclusion, I will confront two likely counters to my thesis. Since MacIntyre advises that the Nietzschean diagnosis is a viable logical conclusion, I will contend with this counter by offering a Christian worldview refutation of his theory. I will close the defense of my thesis by defusing the popular arguments of postmodernism that deny the possibility of a harmony of moral value and fact.
A well known axiom is that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. If apologists are seeking an opportunity to leverage the Weberian plight of our moral culture with a Christian alternative, avoiding the mistakes of the past are important. MacIntyre makes some valid judgments on how philosophies of reason failed to bring about successful ethical systems.
Failure of the Enlightenment Project
MacIntyre refers to the sociology of Max Weber as being spot on for the contemporary vision of the world on which the consensus morality is based. Weber developed a methodology by which social behavior is essentially individually driven and prone to the irrationality of emotions. While he did not deny the possibility of an “ideal” type of rational cause in a general sense, he explained that the reality of social structures is comprised of people who are largely motivated by irrational causes. In his definition of methodological foundations he states:
“By comparison with this it is possible to understand the ways in which actual action is influenced by irrational factors of all sorts, … in that they account for the deviation from the line of conduct which would be expected on the hypothesis that the action were purely rational.”
The reference by MacIntyre to Weberian theme and vision to contemporary morality indicates that ethical and social structures are dominantly driven by emotive causes. He further elaborates on the irrationality basis for his definition of sociological methodology with:
“It is naturally not legitimate to interpret this procedure as involving a “rationalistic bias” of sociology, but only as a methodological device. It certainly does not involve a belief in the actual predominance of rational elements in human life … there is, however, a danger of rationalistic interpretations where they are out of place naturally cannot be denied. All experience unfortunately confirms the existence of this danger.”
MacIntyre is not suggesting that Weber is responsible for the contemporary vision of sociology and moral frameworks. But rather, Weber accurately defines a system which is best understood and manipulated utilizing his sociological methodologies. The accountability for the decline of morality into an irrationally driven system is laid upon the failure of the Enlightenment project and its rationally constrained moral philosophers. Weber’s sociology was a product of the failure and not the cause. The irrational emotivism in contemporary culture is a rebellion against the failure of rational enlightenment philosophers to construct a unified moral system.
The dominant historical predecessor to Enlightenment moral schemes was the classical Aristotelian virtue model. Three elements comprised this teleological scheme. “Man-as-he-happens-to-be” was contrasted with “man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential nature.” Ethics is the science which teaches men how to make the transition from the former to the latter. The third element in the teleological scheme is the presuppositional telos of man. Note how this triad model is tensioned. The differentiation of qualitative character is made possible by the presupposition of the telos standard.
Aristotelian metaphysical biology promotes the idea that all species have a specific nature. Therefore, a species naturally migrates towards certain aims and goals. These ends are the telos. For human flourishing to occur, virtues must be learned and developed for an individual to achieve eudaimonia which is translated from the Greek to mean blessedness, happiness, and prosperity.
The corruption of the Aristotelian system by the Enlightenment project was the elimination of the telos standard defined by the virtues. The idea that there is a means to achieve goodness for man without an acknowledgement or exercise of the virtues is futile. But that was the effect of Enlightenment rationally-based systems.
MacIntyre identifies Hume and Diderot as reasoning from a premise that human nature is driven by the passions. And Kant was identified as reasoning from a premise that human nature cannot possibly be the universal of morality. He instead, postulates a practical rule of reason to justify a moral standard. Kierkegaard did not attempt to justify a moral standard by reason or passions but advocated a leap of faith towards a moral system which presumed fundamental moral decision-making in human nature.
All of these philosophers of the Enlightenment period destroyed the working framework of the ancient Aristotelian virtue tradition. MacIntyre identifies the common culprit of each of these philosopher’s theories with a flawed concept of human nature. It was flawed since it denied the telos of man. The failure of their definitions of human nature began a trend of distrust in scientific systems, and in reason generally, for any hope in resolving the sociological conflicts of culture. Weber’s sociological methodologies were accurate because reason had failed and been replaced by irrational-emotive morality.
But was the Aristotelian moral scheme as robust in structure and practice in medieval times as MacIntyre seems to infer? I think not. The nemesis of the Aristotelian scheme is ancient and has its roots in classical Greek thought beginning with Plato.
What Led to the Failure of the Enlightenment Project?
The failure of moral attempts is artistically expressed in Raphael’s The School of Athens painting. Two of the portrayed characters in this work of art are Plato and Aristotle. The two men are prominently positioned in the center of the painting with Plato pointing upward and Aristotle spreading his hands downward. These postures are symbolic of their philosophies. Plato emphasized the ideals of the universals and Aristotle the natural world of particulars. Subtlety expressed in this classic art is the contemporary moral dilemma.
Plato structured a comprehensive worldview for reality. His philosophy was rational, defensible and open-ended. He initiated a classical framework for dualism. The universals and particulars. The immaterial and the material. However, his emphasis on the Forms introduced a philosophical chasm that man was incapable of crossing. Although Plato appealed to an ideal standard, he did not provide a solution for man to achieve a unity of his material and immaterial parts.
Plato’s Theory of the Recollections suggested an ideal for man in that he came “prepackaged” with at least the idea of the good. Nonetheless his hierarchy established immaterial reality as the ideal. Natural man was hopelessly immersed in a material world. There seemed to be an infinite amount of rungs down the ladder for a climb upward to satisfy man’s prepackaged Recollection. And thus his greatest student presented a solution.
Aristotle revised Plato’s dualism and hierarchy to be more practical. It certainly had significant areas of disagreement. Aristotle stressed that all things have matter and form. Matter is stuff with potential. The form gives stuff essence. Living creatures have the form of a soul but the soul is more then just the form for it includes the material stuff. This is the salient differentiation between Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle rejected the Platonic notion that the soul can exist apart from the body. It is no wonder that Aristotle was named the Naturalist for his metaphysics integrated the wholeness of man into a natural entity. Aristotle’s metaphysical biology insisted that humans are not humans because they are made of human stuff but because they function as humans. The significant function of humans was to reason.
The quarrel that lead to the fact-value dichotomy had its formal beginning in classical Greek philosophy. Was man hopelessly imperfect in his material form or was he potentially everything he could possibly be in his bodily form? If we fast forward about 15 centuries Thomas Aquinas comes to the rescue.
Aquinas’ philosophy was a Christian form of Aristotle but his notion of the interaction of nature and grace created a crack in Aristotle’s integrated notion of the human soul. Aquinas had the benefit of over 1000 years of Christianity from which to develop his moral thesis. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the dark ages, and up until his time, an overwhelming emphasis had been placed on heavenly things. Perhaps it was the dismal conditions of social structures during the dark ages. In a sense, the focus on the heavenly was a throw back to Plato’s hierarchy of reality. As a consequence of this focus, Christianity had very little interest in nature. Aquinas changed all of that and his thought birthed the humanistic elements of the Renaissance. His philosophy of natural theology launched the hope and pursuit of knowledge independent of scripture. This hope was founded on Aquinas’ view of the fall. His view held that the will of man is fallen but not his intellect. But Aquinas definitely proposed a unity of man and expressed that there is a correlation between nature and divine through natural theology and the special revelation of scripture. However, the crack he unwittingly introduced by definition of the two realms of grace and nature, coupled with his positivism of human reason, planted the seeds of Enlightenment Philosophy and led to its ultimate failure.
As noted earlier in this essay, Enlightenment moral philosophers eliminated the binding element of human telos from Aristotelian and Thomistic models and replaced it with a high aspiration for reason to bind it all together. Prior to the full development of Thomist moral theory, western man had three basic principles to comprise practical philosophy.
The first principle was that man was rationalistic. Man begins totally from himself, gathers information, and formulates models of reality. The second principle was that man believed in the rational. If a certain thing was true its opposite was not true. This is antithetical thought. From a moral perspective, if a thing was right, the opposite was wrong. The third principle was that man believed philosophy would construct unified knowledge. These principles motivated aspirations that by the means of rationalism and rationality they would find a complete answer for resolving moral conflicts. The failure of the Enlightenment Project so named by MacIntyre was a failure for a satisfying unified knowledge of reality.
Plato’s theory of Recollection and Kant’s theory of Practical Reason demonstrates the full cycle of pendulum swing over 2000 years of western thought . Plato theorized that man’s ability to learn and his shadowy perception of the ideal was a “prepackaged” idea of the good. Kant reiterated this type of fuzziness in his theory of Practical Reason. “Moral function of reason produces religious feelings and intuitions on knowledge of moral conduct.” Great minds have struggled with models for explaining the dualistic nature of man and seems to have failed. Postmodernism has given up trying to know the truth and naturalism denies the dualism of man that seems to be intuitive. Is there a solution?
The Value of a Christian Worldview for the Success of Virtue Ethics
Alasdair MacIntyre advocates a return to the moral philosophy of Aristotle in the revised Thomist tradition as the solution. There is reason for hope in this model if the telos of man is biblically based on the doctrine of Imago Dei. But what does it mean to be made in the image of God?
Humans have a moral component and inherently understand right and wrong. Humans are spiritual beings with an intuitive recognition of life beyond the physical. He has a propensity towards worship and seeking after God. Humans are relational and desperately need a working model for moral and ethical behavior in sociological structure. Humans have mental capacity with an ability to reason. Therefore, the solution to a unified moral system must include the integration of the image of God as a foundation.
Dr. Henry Cloud defines “integrity” as the courage to meet the demands of reality. A successful moral philosophy which integrates Thomist substance dualism can be facilitated through a three part Christian worldview. The answers to these three questions must be understood by anyone who wants to live with integrity.
- Where did I come from?
- What is wrong with me?
- What can I do to make myself right?
The answer to question one lies in the Christian doctrine of creation. Everyone is created in the image of God. As a creature designed by God, the physical part of man is not evil but good and has a purpose, function, or telos. The second answer lies in the Christian doctrine of the fall. Since man is the masterpiece of God’s creation the destructiveness of sin creates misery. For human flourishing to be realized in the elusive Aristotelian eudaimonia sense, redemption is necessary. Christ atoned from man’s sins through his life, death, and resurrection. If man becomes a new creature in Christ, the shadowy Platonic Recollection is lightened and hope for integrity is realized. The dichotomy between fact and value is converged into a unified reality.
But MacIntyre advises that our contemporary moral state has two logical options and the thesis of this essay has advocated a Thomist Virtue ethic as a solution based on a worldview predicated on Imago Dei. Is the Nietzschean alternative viable?
The Nietzschean Alternative
MacIntyre agrees with Nietzsche’s pronouncement of failure on Enlightenment positivism but not his solution. According to Nietzsche, the same desires that attract man to science’s false promise of control and objectivity are the same that attract us to utilitarian and Kantian ethics. It is a superficially optimistic belief that scientific progress and morality will make life meaningful.
Nietzsche’s recommendation is that all life and happiness are governed by the will to power. The will to power is man’s “intrinsic and inexorable ache for more…includes but exceeds the will to self-preservation…it seeks … an intensification of life.” The refutation of Nietzsche’s proposition is two-fold.
Has science really failed to provide a modicum of success in its promise of control and objectivity? Perhaps Nietzsche would still affirm this but he would not be the consensus. Science has found useful knowledge through the investigation of nature that is objective enough for useful technology. Modern man experiences the benefits of scientifically objective truth to the extent that few in the modern western world want for basic survival and comfort.
A second refutation emerges from man’s experience of human flourishing. Libraries are full of biographies and a plethora of movies lament the consequences of lives spent on the economy of a selfish will to power. Nietzsche’s philosophy is repulsive to all but the extreme in our world. It is not viable. However, there is another reaction to the unrealized expectations of modernity.
Postmodernism is the result of too much confidence in science. After all, the 20th century demonstrated great strides in technological advancement that placed a man on the moon and confirmed many of Einstein’s predictions concerning the origins of our universe. But miserable failures were also exhibited in the atrocities of two world wars and continued economic inequality. Some would call the verdict on scientific solutions to be a draw at best. Are we any happier? Is evil mitigated by scientific advances?
Some postmoderns would answer that we are not better off as a result of science. Therefore, reason is incapable of a solution to the problem of morality. And thus, postmoderns have given up looking for objective truth and substituted a truth that works within a social community. This philosophy fits well with the unrealized expectations from science and the rampant pluralism in our technology shrunken world.
But the criticisms of postmodernism are vulnerable to the same refutations to Nietzsche. While Enlightenment moral philosophers exaggerated the future progress of reason, more truth has indeed been established. However, there are limits to natural explanations and for immaterial solutions man needs to look to the supernatural. This is the explanatory power of Thomist substance dualism. A balanced perspective of reality facilitates access to solutions from the natural and supernatural. The immaterial substance of man is moral and cannot expect to find solutions in the domain of natural reason.
The thesis of my essay was that the Aristotelian-Thomist virtue ethic espoused by MacIntyre can only be effectively lived within a Christian framework. This framework provides a solution for human flourishing. The foundation of my thesis summarized MacIntyre’s assessment of the failure of the Enlightenment project to provide a unified moral system. I followed the summary with an expansion on the history of moral philosophical failure and claimed that the problem ebbs and flows as a result of an imbalance in emphasis on epistemological source. There is either too much emphasis on the heavenly or too much emphasis on the natural. I concluded my thesis point by offering a Christian worldview structure for defining a balanced understanding of man’s ontology. I briefly addressed possible counters to my thesis by Nietzschean and postmodern proponents.
Worldview is a translation of the German word “Weltanschauung” which means a way of looking at the world.  Christians believe there is a proper way of looking at the world. Reality must be envisioned with clarity to live with the wholeness of integrity. Reality is comprised of natural and transcendent laws. Man is made in the image of God but corrupted by sin. Unless sin is remedied the transcendent component of reality is incoherent with the natural. But man can flourish and live with the courage to meet the demands of reality. The atonement of Jesus Christ is available to bring clarity of the transcendent and moral truth. As new creatures in Christ, the Holy Spirit transforms man’s carnal nature to live with wholeness and a true moral compass.
Cloud, Dr. Henry. Integrity. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Heydebrand, Wolf. The Sociology of Max Weber. Continuum, 1994. Sections on foundations reproduced on http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/weber.htm (accessed Dec. 16, 2011).
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue Third Edition. Notre Dame, IN:University ofNotre Dame Press, 2010.
Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth. Wheaton,IL: Crossway Books, 2005.
Rana, Fazale, with Hugh Ross. Who was Adam? Colorado Springs,CO: NavPress, 2005.
Reynolds, John Mark. When Athens Met Jerusalem. Downers Grove,IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
Schaeffer, Francis. Escape from Reason: Francis Schaeffer Trilogy. Wheaton,IL: Crossway Books, 1990.
Smith, R. Scott. Ethics and the Search for Moral Knowledge. La Mirada, CA: Biola University, 2005.
Soccio, Douglas J. Archetypes of Wisdom. Belmont,CA:Wadsworth Publishing, 1998.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue Third Edition (Notre Dame, IN:University ofNotre Dame Press, 2010), 118.
 Wolf Heydebrand, The Sociology of Max Weber (Continuum, 1994), Sections on foundations reproduced on http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/weber.htm (accessed Dec. 16, 2011).
 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue Third Edition (Notre Dame, IN:University ofNotre Dame Press, 2010), 52.
 Ibid, 148.
 Ibid, 149.
 Ibid, 52.
 Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason: Francis Schaeffer Trilogy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 215.
 John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem (Downers Grove,IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 87.
 Ibid, 77.
 Ibid, 190.
 Douglas J. Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1998), 155.
 John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem (Downers Grove,IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 190.
 R Scott Smith, Ethics and the Search for Moral Knowledge. (La Mirada,CA:BiolaUniversity, 2005), 311.
 Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason: Francis Schaeffer Trilogy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 209.
 Ibid, 210.
 Ibid, 211.
 Ibid, 229.
 Douglas J. Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1998), 399.
 Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross, Who was Adam? (Colorado Springs,CO: NavPress, 2005), 79
 Dr. Henry Cloud, Integrity (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 24.
 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton,IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 87.
 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue Third Edition (Notre Dame, IN:University ofNotre Dame Press, 2010), 118.
 Douglas J. Soccio, Archetypes of Wisdom (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1998), 570-571.
 Ibid, 569.
 R Scott Smith, Ethics and the Search for Moral Knowledge. (La Mirada, CA: Biola University, 2005), 173-174.
 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton,IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 23.
 Dr. Henry Cloud, Integrity (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 24.